Boy, this ranks up there with Curse of the Voodoo in the “Most Likely to Be Boycotted by Al Sharpton” category. Lone black East Side Kid Scruno (Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison) is the butt of so many racial jokes, it’s almost fascinating — like a time capsule of how such overt racism was deemed innocuous comedy in that era. Boys of the City pre-dates future East Side Kids haunted house features Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose and makes Scruno’s portrayals in those films downright NAACP Image Award-worthy.
The improvement over the course of the decade could in fact be attributed to protests by groups like the NAACP against such noxious roles, although the end result was that when those roles dried up, nothing replaced them. Indeed, when the East Side Kids morphed into the Bowery Boys in 1946, Morrison didn’t come along, meaning future horror comedies from the group, like Spook Busters, Master Minds and The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, were all-white affairs.
The story begins much like Spooks Run Wild; that is, the lovable ruffians get sent to the country to rehabilitate their ruffian ways, only to encounter a “haunted” house. The character of Scruno himself is a more over-the-top stereotype here than in either Spooks or Ghosts, with more exaggerated “yessuhs” and “missuhs” and a ridiculously caricatural fear of spooks. In fact, Scruno only needs to see a graveyard and he yells, “Ghosts!” (or, as he pronounces it for most of the film, “Ghostses!”) Even the other characters notice his histrionics: “What ails you?” one asks.
Things only get worse when he enters the spooky mansion and exclaims, “Man I sure do miss that old plantation!” When the kids are served dinner, everyone gets normal dishes, but Scruno gets a heaping slice of — you guessed it — watermelon. “Oh man,” I thought. “They aren’t really gonna do this, are they?” Sure enough, Scruno’s face lights up: “Ooh boy! I don’t like dat woman and I don’t like dat graveyard, but watermelon is watermelon anytime!” He literally dives in head-first.
Lord knows why Scruno even hangs out with the rest of these kids; he’s always being made fun of, particularly by gang leader Muggs (Leo Gorcey), who at one point tells him, “Hey boy, bring us some ice water, will ya?” Scruno instinctively snaps to attention — “Yessuh!” — before realizing, “Say, I’s a guest here too!” After the gang gets into a car accident, Muggs looks at Scruno and yells, “His skin! He’s black and blue!” And appropriately enough, as the film ends with the kids eating chocolate cake, Muggs (for some reason) attempts to take a bite out of the cake in Scruno’s hand but can’t distinguish between the cake and his dark skin: “Ow! That’s my hand you’re eatin’, man!” COM-O-DEE!